Once upon a time: Seeking the passage to salvation

By Monsignor Xavier Mankel

Doors. We so often take them for granted. Cellar doors protected crops stored for the winter, or Christmas presents, or family stills during Prohibition days. Basements store furnaces, air-conditioning units, and family treasures.

The doors to our houses offer safe passage to those who enter invited and are locked for protection against those who do not. Banks, department stores, grocery stores, schools, and jails have doors. Even sophisticated doghouses have doors.

Some doors are not used by nice people. The doors of houses of ill repute are off limits except to priests who minister to the inhabitants during their final hours [Remember: first, call the priest; second, call the doctor; third, call the undertaker].

Our churches have doors — some lead to storage rooms, others lead to restrooms, classrooms, janitor and supply rooms, choir lofts, and sacristies. The most holy doors lead into the nave or the sanctuary, where sacred functions occur. During special times like holy years, some doors are made more special and holy.

And that’s why they are called Holy Doors.

Our bishop blessed the front inside doors of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus before the noon Mass on Dec. 8. The ceremony began at the Chancery chapel, and the group processed to the cathedral vestibule. At noon, the doors were opened to the public and Mass followed.

Other churches in the diocese with specially designated Holy Doors are the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, St. Mary in Johnson City and the Church of Divine Mercy in Knoxville.

Pope Francis began the Jubilee of Mercy on Dec. 8 and opened the Holy Doors of St. Peter’s Basilica to symbolize the universal Church. As the Holy Father was doing this, some were asking, “What is a Holy Door? Why do we do this? What is the point?”

In a written article, Thomas L. McDaniel, a writer and Church historian, offers the following answers:

What is a Holy Door?

A Porta Sancta [Holy Door] is a special door in a cathedral or basilica that is opened only during the jubilee years.

Traditionally, the Holy Door is the one in St. Peter’s Basilica. Following a Jubilee Year, it is sealed with brick and mortar and not opened until the next Jubilee Year.

When is a Holy Door opened?

Usually, this should be every 25 years. Pius XII opened the door in 1950 and Paul VI in 1975, but St. John Paul II opened it early, in 1983, and again in 2000. It also may be opened during “extraordinary” years, as was the case in 1983 and again in 2015. Pope Francis inaugurated the 2016 Jubilee of Mercy by opening the door on Dec. 8, and it will remain open for the year, closing again on Nov. 20. The Dec. 8 date was chosen because it is the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and marks the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council.

Pope Francis declared that “every local church, at the cathedral — the mother church of the faithful in any particular area — or, alternately, at the co-cathedral or another church of special significance a Door of Mercy will be opened for the duration of the Holy Year. … Every particular church, therefore, will be directly involved in living out this Holy Year as an extraordinary moment of grace and spiritual renewal. So the Jubilee will be celebrated in Rome and in the particular churches as a visible sign of the Church’s universal communion.”

How are the doors opened?

Until recently, the pope would strike the wall three times with a hammer, and then it would be dismantled and the door opened. In later years, the mortar would be removed and the bricks loosened so the wall would crumble when the pope tapped on it. This caused problems in 1975 when some debris struck Pope Paul VI, so since the time of St. John Paul II, the wall is removed and the pope just pushes open the big doors.

What do I get if I make a pilgrimage to Rome and walk through the doors?

A plenary indulgence. The remission of temporal punishment for sins forgiven in confession is offered to those who walk through the doors, receive the Eucharist and reconciliation, pray for the intention of popes and perform an act of mercy.

So what is this all about?

Pope Francis says, “On that day, the Holy Door will become a door of Mercy through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God, who consoles, pardons and instills hope.”

Doors are symbolic and can represent passage: sin to redemption, life to death, disbelief to faith. Jesus describes himself as “The Door,” and people have to enter through Christ to get to the Father — a path to salvation. There also is Marian symbolism, since the Blessed Mother is the door through which salvation entered the world. So, opening the doors on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception had double meaning. Also, Pope Francis is emphasizing his desire to throw open the doors of the faith to the world.

So we have another opportunity to increase our holiness. In passing through these doors — what a blessed sacramental they can be.

Monsignor Xavier Mankel is a vicar general and historical archivist for the Diocese of Knoxville.

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